So, yeah, apparently this blog is all about reviewing horror movies now I guess? But before we get to Mama, I would like to point out that Chris and I have been, oh let’s call it “discussing” Texas Chainsaw 3D for like a goddamn week now. Here is his (FINE, obviously sensible and mostly accurate) review/analysis of the movie. (Though that is totally not what I meant when I said he was “bad at horror movies,” and also IT’S TOTALLY TRUE: CHRIS IS BAD AT HORROR MOVIES.) And then this was followed up by many more discussions and chat logs. We’ve decided also that we’re going to turn it into a co-written book: he writes one chapter on, say, the death of the traditional monster in modern storytelling, and then I’ll write a chapter that just goes: “NOOOOO IT’S LEATHERFAAAAAACE,” and has a picture of me stomping, and then we’ll alternate back and forth like that. The front cover will be that picture of me taking a shot and him looking doubtful.
Also Chris is mean.
So but now on to MAMA AND ITS TERRIFYINGNESS (especially since Chris didn’t see it with me and therefore does not get to disagree):
(I think that might actually be from a different Mama, but it’s something that google image search says is “Mama,” and it’s also kind of scary, so whatever.)
(And also I’m going to spoil the shit out of this, too, fyi.)
I liked this movie! I did! A lot! The last five minutes went quickly and oddly downhill in a kind of weird (though admittedly not unexpected) way, so it left a bit of a bad taste there at the end, but before that, it was awesome! And SCARY. Or at least it perfectly hit MY two biggest personal terror-buttons: human bodies moving in weird ways that they shouldn’t (a la J-horror-type ghosts, though the “wrongness” of the movement in Mama was fascinatingly different – I’m planning on blathering more about this in a second), and scary backgroundish noises (a la The Exorcist – and man, this movie did those SO WELL that…I mean I don’t think I can say it did it BETTER than The Exorcist? But…I kind of want to?).
Another thing Mama did REALLY well was the jump-scare. Telegraphed as shit (which is NOT a bad thing at all – and in fact might be the BEST part of a jump scare: waiting and waiting and waiting for it to happen, and KNOWING it’s going to happen and it keeps NOT…QUITE…HAPPENING…YET…. That sort of “la petite mort” kind of thing, almost?), but always REALLY effective still.
In fact, I did two different silly-movie-audience-member things during jump scares in this movie. The first time, I was holding my pen and notebook (because I was taking notes, like normal regular people do when they’re watching movies in public), and when I jumped, I literally threw them both up into the air, where, like, papers that were stuck in between the pages of my notebook flew up and everything sort of went six inches above my head and then fell back into my lap in a very comical manner.
The second time I LITERALLY GRABBED ONTO THE ARM OF THE GUY SITTING NEXT TO ME, who was a total, complete stranger (not even part of the meetup group) and who was very nice about the whole thing.
(This is kind-of-but-not-really a spoiler [in that, like, when the scene actually happens? you're already going to KNOW that something terrifying is about to appear? so this photo isn't really going to change that much for you] but this is the exact moment when I grabbed that dude’s arm:)
After that I learned how to sit: leaning away from the nice young man, pen and notebook clenched between my thighs, hands in fists (with the thumbs on the inside, so that if I hit my own face I wouldn’t scratch myself with my fingernails, which I’ve also done before at horror movies) below my chin far enough that I wouldn’t accidentally punch my glasses and break them. It worked out pretty well.
Man, this is totally just going to be another thesis-less bullet-point-y mess of a blather, isn’t it?
Okay, so first of all, it was VERY Guillermo del Torro-y. (Even though I think he only produced, didn’t write or direct?) Sad ghosts and orphans and moms and happy/sad endings. But also it was really brutal. (Maybe that’s del Torro-y, too, though, now that I think about it: the twist-ish answer to the mystery in The Orphanage, the ending of Pan’s Labyrinth: I guess maybe he actually doesn’t fuck around.) (Er…okay, I guess he only produced The Orphanage, too?) But so the story opens with this definitely-not-ghostly bit of violence that is sort of painfully realistic and worrying and involves money/business problems and a dad going bad and sad and domestic violence and very small adorable children and guns and a very sudden and matter-of-fact car crash and it’s all just very BRUTAL right there in the first five minutes. By the time the ghost shows up you’re almost relieved: at least that’s JUST a ghost.
And speaking of the adorable children: there are five actresses in this movie playing two sisters at 1 and 3, and then 5 and 8. The two 1 year olds were, you know, good at sitting and looking cute. But these other three actresses were FUCKING ASTOUNDINGLY AMAZING. Like, just balls-out bananas good. Sincerely, genuinely, Oscar-worthy good. Especially the girl who played the older version of the younger sister. She had like three lines, maybe, in the whole movie (she was, like, non-verbal) but she was just brilliant. I have no fucking clue how the director managed to get these very very young children to give these performances, but they’re all just uniformly flawless. SO believable and SO real. (Also all just painfully adorable, says the lady who hates children. In fact, that guy I was sitting next to? The one whose arm I grabbed? He was one of those rowdy teenagers, a big sort of tough-looking dude who slouched and was chatting with his friend about “snitching” before the show [though – okay, I’m obviously trying to tell a funny story and paint him in a very particular way here, but also, interestingly enough, they were discussing what their respective therapists had told them about this and that, and how to not treat girls passive-agressively or something? so, whatever], and after one of the girls gave a particularly adorable line reading at one point, he chucked softly and whispered: “Awww, damn, cute.”)
Jessica Chastain, on the other hand, was a weird casting choice. She wasn’t bad or anything, but…like, I just don’t get it. Why? Especially with that weird dark short wig and the heavy eye make-up. Like, she was just so generic under all that that it really seems like they could have cast ANYBODY. Using Jessica Chastain seems sort of like a waste?
Also, in looking up those 5 actresses playing 2 girls, I noticed that there were at least 4 different people playing Mama, too – two women doing the voice (I kind of want to watch it again now to pay attention to that…wonder if that was one doing the “I kind of look like a normal lady” voice and one doing the “OH HOLYS SHIT WHAT THE FUCK I’M NEVER SLEEPING AGAIN” noises, or if that was two people doing different things, layered together, to make the scary parts? I bet it’s that second thing), one woman billed as “beautiful Mama,” and one gangly-ass, creepy-looking dude (um…don’t click that, probably – just…click on this instead; everything will be okay) who gets top listing as just “Mama.” And she was MOSTLY cgi, too, I think, so…extravagant casting all around. (Except then I guess they realized they were running out of casting budget and they had the same one dude play both the father and the uncle. COME ON GUYS WORK THIS STUFF OUT ONE ACTOR ONE CHARACTER GEEZ.)
A half-interesting note about “beautiful Mama”: she really was an ugly ghost. Not even just, you know, when she was dead and zombified and rotting and angry and mean and meant to look threatening. Even when she was “beautiful Mama,” she wasn’t a particularly pretty woman – and that means that even when she was alive, too. Even during those scenes she was FAR too long and thin, and her face was long and flat, and her eyes were shaped very strangely, and her nose was big and had a witchy bump in it. The story is that this woman had escaped from a “hospital for sad people,” abducted her baby from an orphanage or something (exactly where it was or why it was there, or why it was taken away from her, or if she had it in the hospital, blah blah – all that was never gone into), and ran away with it into the woods where she was chased a mob up to the edge of a cliff above a river – and then she jumped in with the baby. So part of my thinking re: her ugliness was that maybe she was meant to look a little bit deformed? Like she had some kind of genetic disorder which caused her to need to be in a hospital? But that’s not really a “hospital for sad people” exactly, I guess. So – yeah, she was just an unattractive woman. That’s…weird? Maybe it’s not exactly unusual to make the bad guy or the monster in a movie ugly, but there was definitely a point in this movie where you were supposed to stop seeing her as exactly a “bad guy.” It would have been easy enough for them to make her prettier. Not entirely sure why they didn’t.
BUT ALSO, okay, so after she jumps off this cliff? She SMASHES!!! into a MOTHERFUCKING BRANCH!! on the way down!! First of all, this is half-funny and totally shocking and brutal and ridiculous. But mostly, it is also fucking FANTASTIC origin story for why Mama moves the way she does.
She floats, like ghosts do, but her hair and dress floats around her in a way that’s definitely supposed to look like she’s underwater: drowned in this river. But way cooler is the way she walks, or moves when she’s not just floating: she bends and snaps and crunches in horrible, horrifying, terrifying ways – because ALL OF HER BONES ARE FUCKING BROKEN! You actually see it happen – when she falls, you watch this from her POV, so you’re looking at her arms holding her baby. When she hits the branch, you see her arms break and suddenly go crooked and scary. So when she moves, all of her joints bend wrong and sometimes she, like, does a Slinky across the floor, instead of, you know,walking – she just sort of bends in half and flips around and crawls on her hands or something and OH GOD IT’S SO BAD. Anyway, this seemed very clever to me at the time. They didn’t have to explain that shit: she’s a ghost, she moves scary. There. That’s plenty of fucking explanation. That’s all they needed. But they did! They explained it! Or, like, what was even better was that they DIDN’T explain it – they just kind of showed very very briefly that her arms got broken sort of but didn’t like totally point it out or whatever and you had to extrapolate a tiny bit and if you weren’t thinking about it then you wouldn’t have, like, noticed it? I mean, fine, it’s not BRILLIANT, but it’s clever, damnit.
Oh man but also her hands! Oh man. She has these loooooong fingers that beeeennd in ways they shouldn’t! I don’t think it’s cgi. I thought watching the movie that it was an actor wearing a prosthetic, but…damn. Maybe that’s just that dude’s hand.
And Mama wasn’t even the worst offender when it came to the “humans moving wrong” thing that wigs me out so bad! The worst was the girls! Near the beginning of the movie, they’re found in this cabin in the woods after having been raised by Mama for five years. They’re basically feral. They both move on their hands and feet (the younger one almost exclusively – and she’s non-verbal), and the horrible part about it is how FAST they are. They move like SPIDERS or something, and SILENTLY. Oh god it’s bad. I couldn’t tell whether they were cgi, or those actual actresses moving but with the film sped way up, or maybe they were OTHER actors – acrobats or whatever – with little-girl wigs on? (I’m leaning toward mostly-cgi? Cgi-enhanced-actual-little-girls? I genuinely want to know – this is an actual question, if you have any insider knowledge or whatever.) Anyway, they were just terrible. There’s one point when the younger one is squatting on a hospital floor, drumming on the ground with her palms REALLY REALLY FAST and kind of jerky and it’s THAT ONE MOMENT that I’ve had not one but TWO nightmares about already since I’ve seen this movie – not the ghost or whatever, but a little girl playing patty-cake.
Another fantastic/horrible body movement: the aunt swooning bonelessly (SILENTLY!) to a soft pile in the cabin. And also there was some traditional J-horror movement: the aunt after she got possessed, the father under the bridge.
Ho hum what else? Is it time for bulletpoints?
- The dog! Most dogs in horror movies are AFRAID of the bad thing – not this one! He was just sort of cheerfully curious. Ran TOWARD Mama at one point, even, wagging his tail and sort of whining. You were SO SURE he was going to get horribly murdered, because that’s what happens to tiny sweet curious dogs in horror movies, but nope! He was fine!
- The name of the cabin was “Helvetia.” I want to make a hipster-font-nerd joke, but…how?
- According to a very helpful spooky old lady: “A ghost is an emotion out of shape, condemned to repeat itself over and over again until it rights the wrong that was done.” Which, wait, let me check…uh-huh, yes: which is the SINGLE MOST GUILLERMO DEL TORRO-Y SENTENCE EVER SPOKEN BY A HUMAN BEING.
- Also that lady totally worked in the warehouse where they keep Indy’s Arc of the Covenant, or whatever. (Turns out they also keep ghost-baby bones there!)
- Okay, so a lot of the time I get all excited about horror movies that are “feminist” or whatever? This movie was sort of great because it was definitely very much about lady-business (motherhood, single motherhood, also women who DON’T want to be mothers but aren’t judged for that decision in the movie [though I guess she does change her mind later, so whatever], fathers who go crazy/go away, domestic violence [not just the dad killing the wife at the beginning, but literally: violence within the home], murdering people with knitting needles, wet gaping gooey black holes dripping fluid which give birth to things) but there’s nothing particularly feminist about it. Not not-feminist, either, but…just…not one way or the other. Is this a thing to shoot for? Like, is this post-feminism?
- During the opening credits, the story of the girls growing up is sort of shown via little-kid drawings of stuff that happened to them. One of these drawings is of some raccoons biting them and making them sad! Then the next drawing is of those raccoons slaughtered bloodily and the stick-figure drawings of the girls smiling and laughing around their mutilated bodies. The note I took at this point reads: “Haha! Fuck you, raccoons!”
- Also, later in the movie, one of the girls draws a picture of a cute happy smiling furry raccoon for her uncle. I…suspect this means something? Is this insightful?
- The ghost was almost more of a “monster” than a “ghost” sometimes, especially there near the end. This might have been a more interesting post if I had explored WHY or HOW or WHAT THAT MEANS, but…well, I had a lot of things to say about raccoons, and the guy sitting next to me, it turns out.
- The ending really did get pretty stupid. Not the actual plot-wise end to the story, I guess, which was…fine. But the cgi. It had been really interestingly used earlier, and it just got cartoonish and Disney’s Haunted Mansion-y there at the end. Big downturn. Unfortunate.
- Ghost stories are sad. Ghost stories are about death in a way that other horror movies aren’t. Ghost stories are about grief, and mourning, and loss. (Is this insightful?)
- As I was leaving the theatre, I overheard: “Sorry-not-sorry, but nobody TOLD you to go jump off a cliff! And stabbing nuns!? She stabbed those nuns HARD, too!”
It was true, too. She did.
EDIT: HOOOOOOOOOOOOLY SHIT NEVER SLEEPING AGAIN THANKS A FUCKING LOT SHENA.